By Mark Greiner
If you want to change people’s ideas, you shouldn’t try to convince them intellectually. What you need to do is get them into a situation where they’ll have to act on ideas, not argue about them.
– Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School (training labor leaders, civil rights leaders, and community organizers in Appalachia and the South)
Four years ago, Takoma Park Presbyterian Church did a five-month internal listening campaign. Engaging the entire worshipping congregation bore fruit: 5 key goals emerged, including “addressing local inequalities.” Calling out inequalities upsets the “business as usual” equilibrium.
Our church’s equilibrium involved advocacy but not organizing. We had cried out for justice but had not moved into building ongoing relationships. Building multiple relationships in the local community makes conscious the tensions within which we are living. Personalizing tensions through relationship edges us into situations “where we’ll have to act.”
Addressing local inequalities has moved us into relationships across the power spectrum. Through interviews with both formal leaders and hungry people, we discerned needs in our community. As our project unfolded, we agitated legislators and learned how money and influence actually moves. Organizing has unveiled how power functions in our county, so we’re more capable of further action.
We rapidly became concrete. Surveying our assets, we recognized our church building could be offered in further service, particularly our unused commercial-grade kitchen. Working with partners in the local food justice movement, we interviewed Latina moms in one of the local schools with a high incidence of childhood hunger. Many told us they want to start food businesses to earn a living and need a commercial kitchen space to produce food to sell legally.
We spent a year engaging the members of our county council to change the zoning laws. Now, throughout our county, congregations with commercial grade kitchens (in residential neighborhoods) are allowed to rent out their space. Already, other area congregations have begun exploring how to alleviate hunger through the retail use of their kitchens.
Then we spent a year in fundraising, including getting $250,000 in grants through legislation passed in Maryland state government. Now we are designing the renovation so the kitchen can open, fleshing out both the architectural and business plans.
“The kitchen that can change lives” has three components: job creation through micro-enterprise, education (for employable skills and nutrition), and distributing food to hungry people.
Even before the kitchen is renovated and open, we’ve sponsored food handling licensing classes in English and Spanish. With licensing, people can gain better jobs or work in our kitchen once it opens.
At our recent gathering with neighbors, we had a variety of immigrants and others who wanted to learn how they will be able to use the kitchen. We also had about 8 candidates for local office and two members of the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. We demonstrated our power to build bridges across ethnicity and class. We are “on the map” politically, able to exercise power for the common good. While we have ongoing neighborhood gatherings and much support, we do also have neighborhood opposition. Our opponents both signal our efforts are being felt and raise valid concerns that are helping us better design the kitchen and program.
We could not have gotten this far without the generous outpouring of encouragement. Business leaders (who will eventually provide markets for food produced in the kitchen), microcredit organizations, and social entrepreneurs have provided extraordinary levels of insight. From our church and neighborhood, a tenacious, dynamic leadership team has emerged.
And yet, the work continues. Creating a micro-enterprise kitchen keeps us learning about “the world as it is”: both a welter of regulations and the limited credit available to small businesses thwarts job creation. We’ve come far in three years, but we’re still working through a variety of hurdles before renovation can begin. The actions and challenges keep us at gut level learning:
- Organizing is fun.
Organizing has engaged our church in many, many conversations and relationships would not have had otherwise. We increasingly know the complex texture of our county.
- Action creates a chain reaction
Expect resistance. Organizing is continuous. Each action has called to further action and to engage new conversation partners.
- Relentless persistence is necessary….and fruitful.
Myles Horton again: “Anything worth doing takes a lifetime to do….One of the jobs I enjoy most is to create little islands of decency, places for people to be human.”
- Hunger is a symptom.
Hungry people want to work. The lack of a living wage and affordable housing makes many neighbors hungry in seemingly affluent, suburban Maryland.
- Poor nutrition is not about a lack of available calories.
Poor nutrition is about a food system designed for corporate profitability. Our food system is not yet about regenerative agriculture organized to feed people sustainably.
Action stirs up trouble and changes lives. Jesus inaugurated public ministry by reading the Isaiah scroll:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Most High has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim
liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
With these words as the church’s charter, I’m troubled. I’m pushed way outside my comfort zone to act in concert with others. Where the need is great and I begin with few practical skills, I’m moved more deeply into community and humbled repeatedly to rely on Grace.
Mark Greiner is the pastor of Takoma Park Presbyterian Church (www.takomaparkpc.org). To learn more about “the kitchen that can changes lives” visit ww.tpssck.org. Action in Montgomery (AIM) is the community organizing group of which we are members. AIM is part of the Industrial Areas foundation.